November 24, 1996
By DAVID CRARY AP Writer
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) -- Canadian investigators are amassing evidence of widespread physical and sexual abuse inflicted on Indian children decades ago at government-funded, church-run boarding schools.
Victims across Canada, coaxed into confronting their nightmares, have told police of rapes, beatings, suicides, suspicious deaths, humiliating punishments, even the use of a homemade, low-voltage electric chair.
Two major investigations are in progress, and dozens of former boarding school staff members are likely to be charged. One Catholic bishop already has been convicted of sexual assault.
Nearly 80 of the so-called residential schools existed nationwide, starting in the 1880s and continuing into the 1970s, before pressure from Indian leaders forced them to close.
In many cases, children were forced to attend, separated from their families 10 months of the year while Catholic and Protestant instructors tried to steer them away from their native spiritual beliefs.
Students were punished for speaking their native languages, force-fed white culture. In British Columbia, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police task force, assisted by Indian groups, is seeking testimony from former students at all 14 of the province's defunct residential schools.
"We're talking about thousands of people who attended these schools, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, who were abused," says Constable Jerry Peters, who oversees the year-old task force from a Vancouver police headquarters.
The probe covers 10 schools that were run by the Catholic Church, two by the Anglican Church and two by the United Church.
There had been some prosecutions for abuse at residential schools in previous years, but Peters says the complainants were usually told, "It happened 20 years ago. We can't do anything about it now."
Law-enforcement authorities became more receptive to complaints in the past few years after a prominent chief in Manitoba disclosed that he was a sex-abuse victim and a number of other former students came forward with their stories.
"There are people who have not disclosed things that happened because they fear the criminal justice system, or they tried to put these events behind them," Peters says. Canada has no statute of limitations for serious crimes, including sexual assault. Peters cited one active case dating back to 1935.
Indian organizations are working with police to support and counsel complainants. The Indian coordinator is Charlene Belleau, a former residential school student.
"What has motivated me is the pain and trauma it caused to children," she says. "It's one of the worst scenarios for child sexual abuse -- people in position of trust, violating children who were miles and miles away from their homes."
Belleau blames the schools for the deaths of two members of her family -- one who committed suicide because of maltreatment, another who froze to death trying to run away.
"It's in memory of them that I continue to struggle," she says. Belleau was a key supporter of the Indian women involved in the most important court case to date -- the prosecution of Roman Catholic Bishop Hubert O'Connor for sexual assault committed in the 1960s while he was principal of a residential school near Williams Lake, B.C.
Weeping with emotion after O'Connor received a 2 1/2-year jail sentence in September, Belleau said the case was just "the tip of the iceberg" and might encourage other victims to break their silence.
O'Connor, 68, is the highest-ranking clergyman prosecuted for sex abuse in Canada. After the trial, Vancouver Archbishop Adam Exner expressed compassion for both the victims and O'Connor, and asked Catholics to remember the importance of forgiveness. Belleau, however, was relieved that O'Connor failed in his bid for a suspended sentence.
"Sometimes it's not until you're actually behind bars that you realize the seriousness of your crime," she says.
Peters expects 12 to 20 people to be charged as a result of his investigation.
His team of 13 field officers has interviewed more than 70 former students making complaints against some 110 former staff members, about one-third of whom are dead, Peters says.
Most former students are in their 40s and 50s, recounting incidents from the 1960s and 1970s.
Police also are investigating allegations of suspicious deaths. A former student at the Ahousat residential school contends that one of his schoolmates was beaten to death with a strap for stealing a prune, and Belleau says she believes some students were murdered.
However, Peters says his task force has no evidence of any homicides.
"Some students did commit suicide," he says. "Over the years, the version of how the student died becomes distorted. It almost becomes folklore."
Other investigations are under way in Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories. But the biggest outside of British Columbia is in Ontario, where police are investigating decades of abuse against Cree children at a Catholic-run residential school in the remote northern community of Fort Albany.
Prosecutors say they expect to file charges of physical and sexual abuse against about 20 priests, nuns and lay workers as a result of a three-year probe that included interviews with more than 900 former students at St. Anne's School in Fort Albany.
Former students told of being lashed with a wire whip and receiving shocks while strapped into a homemade electric chair.
Mary Anne Nakogee-Davis says she was sexually abused by a priest while a student at the school.
"This was our Holocaust," Nakogee-Davis told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "They did not kill us physically, but they killed us emotionally and spiritually."
Yet, some elders in Fort Albany -- where Catholicism is the predominant religion -- have spoken out against holding trials in the town, arguing that it would reopen old wounds and that only God can judge those who ran the school.
Belleau says she has encountered the same attitudes in British Columbia, where some chiefs and elders discourage former students from speaking out.
The provincewide investigation in British Columbia was prompted in part by the 1995 prosecution of Arthur Plint. His 11-year sentence for abuse of boys at the Port Alberni Residential School helped persuade many Indians that the courts were willing to deal harshly with offenders.
One of Plint's victims, Willie Blackwater, recently became the first victim to have his disability recognized by an insurance company as worthy of compensation.
Psychiatric testing diagnosed his self-destructive lifestyle as symptomatic of post traumatic stress disorder, the affliction suffered by many Vietnam War veterans.
Blackwater, now 42, says he was raped at least once a month for three years at Port Alberni and beaten when he tried to report the rapes. After leaving the United Church-run school at 13, he turned to alcohol, drugs and burglary, and had trouble holding jobs or sustaining relationships.
"We always ask the victim, 'How has this impacted your life?' " Constable Peters says. "They believe their negative experiences at the schools affected their entire life, their parenting skills, their relationships, drug and alcohol dependency. Some became abusers themselves."
While Blackwater may get his own compensation for losing his latest job at a sawmill, Indian leaders in British Columbia also hope to win collective compensation. They have received advice from organizers of a four-year campaign that recently won $220 million in compensation from the federal government for wrongly interring 22,000 Japanese-Canadians during World War II.
"There has to be compensation for the victims of residential-school abuse," says Ed John, head of the provincial assembly of Indian chiefs. "What we're talking about is loss of family, loss of language, loss of culture."
He and other Indian leaders believe that confronting the abuse will eventually have a healing effect that will give Indian communities self-confidence as they press land claims and seek greater autonomy.
Peters, though now an expert on the dark side of the residential schools, says many former students remember positive experiences, and even hold class reunions.
But Belleau says this is not the time to look on the bright side.
"We have to deal with the negative issues before we can celebrate any positive aspects," she says. "When these abuses have been dealt with, and people recognize that the majority of the children suffered, then I hope we'll come to a day where we can look at this as a dark period of our past, and move on."